Riccardo D’Emidio explores why social norms and informality matter in considerations of corruption.

Growing up in a British-Italian household I was regularly surprised by how differently people behaved in the two countries I called home. The differences ranged from small, everyday things like queuing or greeting friends and family, to more complex behaviour such as how to deal with state bureaucracy and comply with rules and regulations.

When I started working in international development and anti-corruption, I was fascinated and puzzled at the same time: there was a wide range of perceptions and understanding of corruption and integrity in the countries I lived and worked in. In an effort to get a better understanding of these complexities I decided to embark on a PhD. My research explores how, and under what circumstances social norms shape corrupt behaviour.

Why is corruption normal and somehow accepted in certain countries and institutional settings and not in others? The way citizens across the globe make sense of corruption and integrity in their own lives and personal experiences is incredibly varied. For example, bribing a police officer can be a perfectly acceptable and common practice in one country while being completely unacceptable in others (despite it being a crime pretty much everywhere in the world).

The attempt has been to make corruption a high-risk, low-gain venture.

When I started my doctoral studies, I was working as an advisor for an anti-corruption programme in Ghana. The programme supported processes of institutional reform to strengthen anti-corruption public institutions and coordination in the criminal justice sector. Many – if not most – of these anti-corruption programmes were shaped intrinsically by rational-choice approaches to corruption. This entails an understanding of corruption that hinges on incentives, opportunities and information asymmetries. In fact, much of the anti-corruption sector in the past 25 years has focused on strengthening national legislation, closing legal loopholes and ensuring there is more control and fewer opportunities and incentives to engage in corruption. In other words, the attempt has been to make corruption a high-risk, low-gain venture.

These measures include the establishment of anticorruption agencies, freedom of information laws, immunity protection limitations, conflict of interest legislation, financial disclosures, audit infrastructure improvements, and whistleblower protections among others. However, a recent article in the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, flagged how countries that have deployed any or all of these “good” governance policies and tools, have made no more progress in curbing corruption than countries that have much leaner regulatory frameworks.

Does this mean that formal rules and regulations don’t matter? That would not only be a challenging case to make, but also not a very constructive one. After all, corruption remains one of the biggest concerns for citizens across the world and clearly laws, regulations and formal institutions matter. Equally clearly, legal and institutional reform alone are not enough to fix corruption.

This is something that anti-corruption practitioners and academics alike have recently started coming to grips with. Recently there has been a growing inclination to understand better, and unpack, those unwritten – and often taken-for-granted – rules that make a specific behaviour normal and acceptable in a given setting. One way of analysing these dynamics is through the lens of social norms that reveals what kind of behaviour people approve of and consider normal in a given group setting, and what kind of sanctions are in place for people who don’t comply with these norms.

During my very first taxi ride in Ghana’s capital, Accra, in 2016, I remember banging my head against the taxi window as the driver swerved to the right in a busy road to give way to six brand-new SUVs with flashing lights. I later learnt that this was a common practice in the streets of Accra. At any point in time, and no matter the amount of traffic on the road, you might be overtaken at full speed by convoys of shiny SUVs with flashing lights and sirens. You are expected to pull over immediately and give way, regardless of how much (or little) space you may have.

I asked the taxi driver what was going on and he looked at me from the mirror and shaking his head said “it’s the big men … Maybe they are members of parliament, maybe they work for the president, and they need to get through”. While he clearly did not approve of having to let cars pass in front of him, his words also revealed an acceptance of the special status and privileges these “big men” enjoyed.

Unbeknown to me at the time, that exchange with the taxi driver encapsulated many of the research interests that inspired my thesis: the role of norms and expectations in determining behaviour, formal laws and regulations vis-à-vis informality and how this interaction plays out within the state apparatus. As a foreigner who had just landed in Ghana, I was not aware of the complex web of norms that made up that country’s social interactions; I knew they were there, but I did not know what shape or form they took.

Reflecting on the five years spent in and out of Ghana – for my fieldwork and as an international development consultant – I believe that being a foreigner ultimately facilitated my research. I was able to observe carefully, social interactions of civil servants and state representatives around me, and be purposefully reflective in my exchanges with them. I was then able to question underlying assumptions, detect unspoken codes and practices, and on some occasions, ask uncomfortable questions. In other words, I tried to be purposefully sensitive to a certain “grammar of social interaction” that regulated that fuzzy border between formal policies and informal practices.

Needless to say, being a white, European researcher also gave me partial and subjective access to certain interactions and exchanges. While there is no way of mitigating this drawback, being a foreigner also presented its advantages, since it is much easier to identify and question assumptions that are different from your own.

The constellation of norms surrounding and feeding in what some researchers call the “corruption complex” in Ghana is wide and varied. Surprisingly there are very few – if any – norms that actually overlap with the behaviour of corruption. Rather, there is a far-reaching range of norms relating to notions of status, celebration of the rich and wealthy, predatory authority, as well as honouring reciprocity and family responsibilities that act as key sources of pressure to engage in corrupt behaviour.

Compliance to these norms often guarantees access to a range of solidarity networks. It favours career progression or simply ensures access to key services. Otherwise, resisting and reporting corruption can be perceived as a complete lack of respect for people with higher status or as a way of not honouring family responsibility or norms of reciprocity which in turn can attract sanctions. These include being ostracised within one’s family or extended network as well as formal repercussions in one’s job such as limited career progression.

Corruption remains one of the biggest concerns for citizens across the world.

Understanding and unpacking the informal pressures of shared social practices such as corruption is a critical endeavour for at least two reasons.

Firstly, it can help scholars and practitioners to gain a more nuanced appreciation of what corruption is. And it can reveal how corruption manifests and what are its drivers in specific contexts and settings, going beyond rational-choice approaches.

Secondly, by taking into account the social and cultural dimensions of corruption, policy and institutional reform can mitigate or shift some of the social pressures generated by existing social norms. In this regard, understanding the dynamics of social norms and corruption, how they interact and feed into each other, is a decisive stepping stone towards enhancing effectiveness of policies and regulations while ensuring they respond to citizens’ needs and realities.

While the focus on social norms is increasingly recognised among practitioners and academics alike as a useful tool to better understand the many facets of corruption and integrity, it still leaves much unaccounted for. Not least of all, in my own head when I think of my behaviour in the two countries I call home.


Riccardo D’Emidio

Riccardo is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Corruption in the Department of Politics at the University of Sussex. He holds a MA in Governance and …

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